Reading the media and viewing television these days, one can easily be persuaded that the human species is on its last legs, still tottering along but only barely making it. In this view, disease is the biggest menace of all. Even when we are not endangering our lives by eating the wrong sorts of food and taking the wrong kinds of exercise (or worse still, no exercise), we are placing ourselves in harm’s way by means of the toxins we keep inserting into the environment that surrounds us.
As if this were not enough, we have fallen into the new habit of thinking our way into illness. If we take up the wrong kind of personality, we run the risk of contracting a new disease called stress, followed quickly by coronary occlusion. Or if we just sit tight and try to let the world slip by, here comes cancer, from something we ate, inhaled or touched. No wonder we are a nervous lot. The word is out that if we were not surrounded and propped up by platoons of health professionals, we would drop in our tracks.
The reality is somewhat different; there has never been a time in history when human beings in general have been statistically as healthy as the people now. Our average life expectancy has stretched from 45 years a century ago to today’s figure of around 75. More of us than ever before are living into our eighties and nineties. Dying from disease in childhood and adolescence is no longer the common occurrence that it was 100 years ago, when tuberculosis and other lethal microbial infections were the chief causes of premature death. Today, dying young is a rare and catastrophic occurrence, and when it does happen it is usually caused by trauma.
Medicine must get some of the credit for the remarkable improvement in human health, but not all. The profession of plumbing also had much to do with the change. When sanitary engineering assured the populace of uncontaminated water, the great epidemics of typhoid fever and cholera came to an end. Even before such advances, as early as the seventeenth century, improvements in agriculture and nutrition had increased people’s resistance to infection. In short, we have come a long way - the longest part of that way with common sense, cleanliness and a better standard of living, but a substantial recent distance as well with medicine. We still have an agenda of lethal and incapacitating illnesses to cause us anxiety, but these shouldn’t worry us to death. The diseases that used to kill off most of us early in life have been brought under control.
Rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease have almost vanished in the Western countries. Tertiary syphilis, once a common cause of insanity, is nowadays so rare as to seem exotic. Poliomyelitis is no longer any risk. Death from coronary heart disease has diminished in incidence by almost 30 per cent and the survival rate climbs every year. There is no such thing as a cancer epidemic, no matter who says so; there is more lung cancer, to be sure, caused beyond doubt by cigarette smoking, but the chief reason for the increased total number of cancers is that more of us are surviving into the age group most likely to develop these diseases.
Meanwhile, biomedical research has moved us into the early stage of a totally new era in medicine. So much has recently been learnt about fundamental processes at cellular and subcellular levels that there are no longer any disease mechanisms that have the look of impenetrable mysteries. There is a great deal still to be learnt about the ailments of our middle years and old age - cancer, heart disease, stroke, dementia, arthritis and the rest. But they no longer seem unapproachable, as they did just ten years ago.
Today’s powerful technologies for basic research have made it possible for scientists to investigate almost any question. This does not guarantee a quick answer, of course, or even a correct one; but the ability to make intelligent guesses and then to formulate sharp questions concerning medicine’s most difficult problems is something new. Never before has there been a time of such excitement and high confidence among biomedical researchers and I pray each day that both government and business will see to it that basic science is given the support it deserves.
It no longer stretches the imagination to see a time ahead when human beings can be relatively free of disease for a full run through life. This does not mean that we shall be any happier or be living much longer than we do now. We shall still die most often by wearing out, according to our individual genetic clocks; but we shall not be so humiliated by the chronic illnesses that now make old age itself seem a disease.
IF ONLY THEY WOULD SHARE IT WITH THE WHOLE WORLD, WITHOUT SEEKING SUCH ASTRONOMICAL FINANCIAL GAIN FOR THE GOD-GIVEN INTELLIGENCE!
May God grant us many, many more years... to a ripe old body and spiritual age… ~ SB